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Odd rivals face off in unlikely Alamo

Bowl games are an annual ritual for Nebraska.

For Northwestern, a post-season appearance is a little more rare. Today's Alamo Bowl against Nebraska is the Wildcats' fourth.

"I've addressed that with them. It's like Babes in Toyland or kids in a candy store _ this is so atypical, so out of our routine that you just don't know what to expect," coach Randy Walker said Friday.

The matchup itself is a little out of the ordinary: Northwestern, which until the mid-1990s was the perennial understudy in the Big Ten, facing No. 9 Nebraska, which won three national titles in the '90s and hasn't had a losing season since 1961.

The No. 18 Wildcats haven't been to a bowl game since playing Tennessee in the Citrus Bowl after the '96 season. Northwestern won the Big Ten title in '95 and went to the Rose Bowl, but before that had not played in a bowl since the 1948 Rose.

The Cornhuskers have played in 39 bowls, including 32 straight.

"We're just playing this year. The past doesn't matter," Northwestern receiver Teddy Johnson said. "We realize we've got to start somewhere. Maybe we're starting our 32."

The 'Huskers also aren't looking at Northwestern's past. The Wildcats averaged 38.56 points this season and tied for first in the conference.

"Northwestern is a team that's on the rise," defensive tackle Loran Kaiser said. "If you look at them like that, then they will catch you off guard. They've been doing it to a lot of teams this year."

The 'Huskers have admitted the AlamoDome, where they won last year's Big 12 championship, is not where they wanted to be after spending the first two months of the season at No. 1. Losses to Oklahoma and Kansas State sent them to Texas.

"It was like a snowball rolling downhill and you can't stop it," center Dominic Raiola said. "You know it is happening but you just can't stop it."

The disappointment of not playing in a Bowl Championship Series game has faded the past few weeks. Nebraska coach Frank Solich said the 'Huskers have had to adjust as their goals dropped, but have taken the past week of practice seriously.

"We have a chance to be rated we think maybe in the Top 5 if we win this game. All that is great motivation," Solich said.

The Wildcats also could be a little disappointed this post-season. They had the inside track to the Rose Bowl but lost to Iowa in the second-to-last game. Purdue, which beat Northwestern on Oct. 14, got the Big Ten's Rose Bowl bid.

Last season, the Wildcats were 3-8 in Walker's first year. Any players on this season's team were backups the last time Northwestern played in a bowl. And it's Walker's first trip to a bowl as a coach. His Miami of Ohio team went 10-1 two years ago but did not get a bid.

"It's excitement. It's something we haven't experienced," Walker said. "None of our guys have been a guy in a bowl game before and now they're guys and they need to understand what it takes to get the distractions out of their mind-set and get ready to play."